The Bison at the Beaver Pond

By Cyberquill 12/19/201021 Comments

From Bush to beavers. If only there were a Pulitzer for most seamless segue.

I grew up near a small creek. Come each spring, my buddies and I would set about constructing a dam at a particular spot in the creek. The dam itself and the little lake it created served no practical purpose whatsoever—we had no plans to add a power plant and earn ourselves candy & milkshake money by supplying the neighborhood with extra electricity, nor did the reservoir ever grow large enough to allow for meaningful swimming or boating. The creek simply needed a dam. Why? Because it needed a dam, dammit!

And so a dam we put up and maintained throughout the summer months until autumn rains turned our pacific little creek into a raging torrent, which our loosely cobbled-together barrier—basically a pile of small rocks stretching from one bank to the other—was unable to withstand. Then, during the winter, the creek usually froze over. As soon as spring rolled around, we would assess the autumnal and hiemal damage to our precious dam and begin to patch up and rebuild.

In essence, we were exhibiting classic beaver behavior, which goes to show how all mammalian life shares a common origin and that certain primal instincts remain scattered among a wide swath of species irrespective of the actual degree of utility of these instincts to a given species, akin to the presence of vestigial structures such as the human tailbone, which appears to exist solely because members of whatever phylum we descended from had functional tails. (If the creationist reader would care to provide a more plausible explanation, he or she is invited to do so in the comment section below. Emphasis on plausible.)

I had, of course, heard of beavers and could always tell a beaver from a squirrel, albeit perhaps not from a groundhog and similarly-sized rodentry. I also knew that beavers were waterphiles and preferred to live in or near plentiful stores of H2O, but I’d never gotten around to studying them in detail. Until I channel-surfed across a documentary about these amazing little critters on the National Geographic Channel just the other day, I’d had no idea my childhood self shared its natural penchant for building dams with the beavers of this world.

The documentary chronicled one year in the life of an American beaver family at their home pond in Montana (or northern Wyoming, I forget). Looking like oversized woodchucks kludged together from other animals’ spare parts—rabbit-like teeth that gnaw through tree trunks as if they were breadsticks (no wonder Fred Flintstone used a beaver as a chain saw!), pentadactylic forepaws, webbed hind-feet reminiscent of ducks, and paddle-tails that “could have been borrowed from a platypus”—come spring, these furry engineers, by turning their stretch of river into a pond via the erection of a fairly sophisticated dam they construct mainly from trees felled with their teeth, create an entire ecosystem that benefits a wide variety of other animals, an impressive illustration of nature in perfect harmony.

Alas, besides beauty and equilibrium, nature features a prodigious measure of heart-wrenching brutality, as exemplified by a rather disquieting peripheral incident captured on camera while filming the beavers. A mama elk and her fawn had come to the beaver pond for a drink of water when, unbeknownst to them, a hefty bison had approached. As soon as mama elk noticed the bison, she sensed danger, but at that point it was too late to hit the road, for the baby elk would have been unable to keep up with mom. So mama elk attempted to distract the bison by ostensibly fleeing a short distance in hopes it would come after her and leave her baby alone. The strategy didn’t pan out as planned, as the bison stayed put, and mama elk inadvertently ended up at too great a distance from her little one to protect it. The big bison was now face-to-face with the baby elk, who—filled with youthful curiosity and not sensing any danger at all—toddled up to the funny-looking behemoth to say hello.

Bison subsist on grass, not elk, and this colossal animal couldn’t possibly have felt threatened by the clumsy youngling in front of him. Yet what did the dopey bison do? He just rammed the baby elk with his horns, sending the poor thing sailing through the air several feet, whereupon the unwitting projectile struggled to get back on its little legs. Somewhat dazed and punch-drunk, the baby elk approached the bison once again, as if to say “Hey, I just wanna be friends!” Same response from the bison: a forceful pair of horns right in the ribs.

After the baby elk had thrice been tossed through the landscape thus and now just lay there in the grass, injured and unable to get up again, the brutish assailant apparently got bored and sauntered off. Mama elk returned to attend to her ailing offspring. According to the voice-over narration, she spent several hours trying to lick her baby back to life, until the bruised and battered patient finally came to and managed to rise to its feet. The last we saw was the hurting baby elk slowly limping off into the woods behind his mom. No telling whether it would recover or perish, as nature does not permit the injured to survive for very long—there are no emergency rooms in the wilderness, and no disability checks for those who cannot care for themselves.

Watching this, my first thought concerned the responsibility of the camera crew in a situation like this. Instead of just standing there filming the needless clobbering, shouldn’t they have rushed to the victim’s aid? But then, of course, maybe the bison episode had been captured with a zoom lens from too far away. Even if the crew had been close-by, the question arises whether potentially saving an elk outweighs the risk of having a crew member impaled by a grumpy bovine.

Perhaps, after the bison had departed, they could have radioed for help and arranged for the stricken baby elk to be medevaced to the nearest veterinarian facility. On the other hand, the job of these camera crews is to film the goings-on in nature, not to interfere with what’s happening. If they started shielding animals from animal attackers, they might as well leave their cameras at home, because they’d have their hands full saving lives and rescuing the injured.

Sadly, there is no way to protect animals in the wild from each other, especially given that many depend on killing for their own survival, so this is a moot point.

But this jerk of a bison was something else. We often hear that despite all the cruelty in nature, animals would never behave as humans behave. If animals kill or attack, they do so only because they must, either for food or self-defense, right?

Well, apparently not always. Some animals are just idiots, like people, pardon the somewhat hyperbolic generalization. And it makes sense. After all—unless you are a hardcore anti-evolutionist who believes that humans were created fully-formed and separately from all other living beings, in which case you will beg to differ—we all trace back to common origins; so why should animals necessarily be above base human behavior? Homo sapiens may have taken gratuitous violence to unprecedented levels, but he didn’t invent the concept. Chimpanzees are even known to use weapons, like clubs and rocks, to beat unwanted trespassers to death in the most gruesome manner imaginable.

If animals in the wild figured out how to make cluster bombs and assault rifles, they might behave just like us. Maybe worse. Who knows.


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  • Andreas Kluth

    I feel compelled — and only because you have made yourself known as a fellow pedant and language lover — to flag a grammatical error:

    “…animals would never behave like humans behave…”

    It is: animals would never behave as humans behave….

    Like governs nouns, as governs verbs.

    Aside from that, I join you in contemplating the mysteries of the wild kingdom when it comes to altruism and jingoism. Aesop’s tales (the mouse and the lion comes to mind) versus this bison bully.

    There was no evolutionary advantage for the ancestors of this bison to behave in precisely this way, was there? Perhaps there was. This gets into the neurochemistry of agression, about which I intend to do a blog series soon….

    • Cyberquill

      Thank you. Was that the only error you found or flagged or both? [I have since replaced my solecistic like with a rightful as, so Mr. Kluth was not hallucinating.]

      Interesting contraposition of altruism and jingoism rather than altruism and selfishness, the subtle intimation being that one can either be a universally caring person or a Republican. (Subtle doesn’t mean wrong. Conservatively-minded folks certainly believe that too much universal caring ultimately benefits no one, and they will point to the potentially inverse correlation between noble intentions and desirable outcomes given the pitfalls of human nature itself.)

      Adult males in the wild do have a reputation for roughing up offspring they didn’t sire themselves, a proclivity that may be ever so tenuously related to the fact that conservatives hate the estate (“death”) tax, which will re-distribute some of their money among individuals outside their own immediate gene pool in violation of the instinctual dictum that protecting one’s own DNA must come first. (To be fair, conservatives tend to donate more money to charity, which, of course, is still a form of limited altruism that allows the givers to retain a sense of control over who will benefit, as opposed to indiscriminate altruism by way of paying taxes.)

      You intend to do a blog series about the neurochemistry of aggression? Intend to? Grammatically speaking, that’s called a hedge, I believe. It’s politician-talk.

      • Andreas Kluth

        As a rule, I restrict myself to one act of pedantry per blog post.

        Now pondering Republicans, death taxes, chimps…..

  • Saf

    As a habitual watcher of nature documentaries (I don’t watch much else, really), I’ll comment on a few other seemingly-brutal and inexplicable (by me) animal behaviors. In the Congo, troupes of chimps will often ritually cannibalize the corpses of enemy chimps that they’ve killed in battle (usually the result of a territorial dispute), each member of the troupe taking and eating only one portion of the fallen. This is the only occasion on which they’ve ever been observed to practice cannibalism, aside from the occasional baby-eating psycopath.

    My first thought was that this ritual must be a terrorism tactic, designed to inspire the rival troupe into regarding the victors not only as competitors, but as predators (or at least howling fucking crazy) — much in the same way that human gangs go out of their way to appear as much like a culture of Satanic murderers as they know how to. Apparently, though, these chimps don’t eat the dead until the rival troupe is long gone and probably not coming back anytime soon. So, why do they do it? To destroy the evidence, in case the Monkey Police happen by in their little Shriner squad car? To absorb the strength of their enemies (if so, wouldn’t they be inclined to consume their own dead as well)? Just to make themselves feel like badasses?

    A male lion’s first act after taking over a pride is to kill any cubs sired by other males. One might argue that the conquering males are just ensuring that their genes are propogated, but really, the existence of another male’s offspring in the pride doesn’t hinder the new male from reproducing. What, then? Are they worried about the male cubs growing up overthrowing him, or avenging their father’s death? Then why are the female cubs killed as well?

    Dolphins, for all their reputation of being benevolent water sprites, will capture, gang-rape, and brutalize females for weeks on end — often resulting in the female’s death (they “capture” by swimming in formation around the female, punching her with their bills when she tries to escape — remember that these “punches” can break a shark’s spine). They’ve also been known to rape human divers… just for the fun of it, I guess. And they have fourteen-inch, prehensile penises. Yikes.

    Also, to address your moral quandary regarding the filmer’s moral responsibility: From what I know, the “not interfering” thing is almost a sacred duty to most nature documentary-makers. I’ve seen cameramen break down and weep like a child while watching the lion family they’ve been filming for six years being annihilated in the middle of the night by a blind Egyptian cobra. I also remember some very powerful footage of one of the Big Cat Diary guys standing on the roof of his Jeep with a rifle, shaking with rage as a poacher was menacing some cheetah cubs (poaching is something that they’re allowed to interfere with, and have interfered with to great effect, from what I understand).

    Charming blog entry, by the way. I had no idea you were imprinted with beaver instincts.

    • Cyberquill

      Yep, and the most frustrating part about my beaver instincts is that I live right next to the East River now, but the Coast Guard won’t let me dam it up. They’re worried I might set parts of Manhattan and Queens under water.

      Flipper? A gang-banging rapist? Say it ain’t so!

      So you don’t watch much else than nature documentaries? I forget who, but in another forum someone just opined that “eating tons of anything is generally a bad idea” …

      • Saf

        I guess I should have said, “I don’t use my television for much, other than watching nature documentaries.” Obviously, I do watch other things when away from televisions.

        That other person in that other forum, whoever they might be, was probably stooping to lowbrow literalist humor by referring to metric tons, whilst the comment that he or she was replying to meant “tons” in an unspecific/figurative sense.

        Flipper is a bastard. Here’s hoping that female dolphins evolve vaginal teeth.

        • Saf

          I neglected to mention that male dolphins also get together with their friends and bat their own offspring around like volleyballs, crippling and killing a goodly number of them. Probably for the best.

          • Cyberquill

            Lovely. And the hits just keep on coming.

            Vaginal teeth? I know you spoke about dolphins, but the thought disturbs me nonetheless. The ultimate Freudian nightmare for males.

  • tschiria

    next to your pulitzer for smooth segues (i like your first two sentences (not only them) if you may allow this sole, seriously meant platitude in this comment) and your childhood’s memory lane, it’s the figure of that cow elk that’s been occupying me most.

    from the “humanized perspective”, the bison seems to be really gratuitously brutal and
    merciless, but his aggressivity did not surprise me.

    what did surprise me, though, was the weak-kneed passivity of the mother.
    actually i hold that (most) mother animals defend their breed to the utmost and at the hazard
    of their lifes.

    so, while visualizing this incident with the bison at the beaver pond, i was wondering where
    had the mother been all along? did she just observe from safe distance how her little fawn
    was abused, skewered and projectiled even three whole times?

    elks are pretty hefty animals as well, and as far as i know, they are well on an equipollent strenght-level with bisons. so this mother animal could have shown more engagement
    and far more courage, apart from her little initial razzle-dazzle, or couldn’t she?

    even if she had had no “objective” chance to defend successfully her little something – she
    was much too absent in my eyes.

    that plot’s blind spot has been really amazing me, so i read up a little bit on the social behavior
    of elks. and stumbled upon the interesting “fact” (?) that an elk cow outcasts her nestling 14 days before the birth of the next baby calf.

    this is not supposed to be an overall explanation for the “failure” (as i interpretate it, mind you, with “humanized” eyes) of the elk cow in this documentary.

    but maybe the nature of the elks, who live as mavericks, is indeed geared to survive by a very
    distinctly stand-alone way. who knows?

    • Saf

      Equipollent is a cute word, but even a male bull elk is nowhere near the mass and musculature of a bison.

      From what I’ve seen of cervine and antilopine behavior, the mothers seem to have a pretty good idea what they can and can’t successfully fend off. In groups, they do tend to exhibit a bit more bravery (and success) in protecting their young, but when it comes to single mothers, usually anything larger than a coyote gets away with their fawn. The attempted diversion tactic is commonly employed at the offset, though it rarely works. Once they realize that the jig is up, they typically do just observe the killing from a safe distance.

      The kind of kamikaze, berserk-with-maternal-instinct protective behavior that you describe is far less common than people would like to believe. Although there is almost always an initial perfunctory effort on the mother’s part, good sense too often takes hold.

    • Cyberquill

      Mama elk did attend to her baby very lovingly once the bison had left, and she couldn’t have done so, had she been injured, too. I suppose she had a sense that “the jig was up,” as Saf put it, and that jumping into the fray would have merely lead to two injured elks instead of one.

      Also, the expression “deer in the headlights” comes to mind. There may be some validity to the cliché that animals in the deer family, such as elk and moose, have a particularly strong proclivity to freeze rather than act when in a state of shock, and perhaps it takes them longer than other animals to come out of that state. Seeing her baby getting roughed up may have shocked her such that she couldn’t move for a spell, and by the time she regained her ability for locomotion, her baby elk had already been whacked a couple of times.

      And perhaps the bison didn’t just saunter off because he “got bored,” as I conjectured in my peace, but because he noticed mama elk approaching and thought to himself, “Uh-oh. Here comes trouble. I’ll better get outta here.”

      • tschiria

        many thanks to you both, saf and cyberquill, for your interesting cervine (and other) insights.

        sense, i should should watch documentaries much more often.

        • tschiria

          darn, i cant post without a mistake, it seems

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  • jenny

    Just wanted to say Happy New Year.

    Now that I’m here, I’m thinking that your toddler self could take down A.K.’s toddler self.


    • Cyberquill

      So you wanted to say Happy New Year … and then what happened? Changed your mind? Are you going to actually say it, or should I stop waiting?

      My toddler self would eat A.K.’s lunch. I was a wild animal, like that bison. Unfortunately, my subsequent years in juvie mellowed me out a little. These days, I sometimes even resort to verbal communication as a means to resolve conflicts.

      Wanted to say Merry Christmas, but I guess I forgot. My bad.

  • Kseverny

    It’s true what you say.
    Violence is part of nature, why would be be any different.
    The bison is known to be aggressive as far i have been able to observe

    • Cyberquill

      Violence is part of human nature, why should animals be any different. Where have you been able to observe bison? Are you an elk, by any chance?

  • Cheri

    Resubscribed to your blog. Not sure what happened to my original subscription.

    I would like to add wild turkeys to your paragraph that starts with “Some animals are just idiots..” Wild turkeys are idiots (but I would never shoot or kill one, purposely)
    Now if they fly into my car’s grill while driving down my road, should I feel guilty?

  • cheri

    Well, I just wrote a comment and it disappeared. I am too lazy and rushed to write it again.

    • Cyberquill

      Your subscription disappeared, your comment disappeared … when you look in the mirror, do you still see your reflection?

      The wild turkeys don’t fly into your car’s grill. You’re driving into the turkeys. The same principle holds regarding U.S. Airways and Canadian geese.

      So would you ever eat one that others have shot or killed, purposely?

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